Like most ESL teachers, I feel like I have a pretty good idea about what my students are thinking during my lessons. However, during four hours of being a second language student, I discovered that I had some significant gaps in my understanding of what my students were actually experiencing. Sitting in a student’s seat was an enlightening experience for me.
To give my colleagues and me a chance to become L2 students, a fellow-teacher, Susan, who was fluent in Farsi, offered to give us four hours of instruction in it. Eight of us (all experienced ESL teachers) met for two hours on consecutive days. During the lessons, she incorporated both teacher-fronted and pair exercises and used a variety of techniques, just as many of us do in our ESL lessons.
We did not start with greetings and opening lines of a conversation, but instead, jumped right into learning some nouns, verbs and prepositions and a few basic sentence structures that could be practiced using in a variety of activities.
Although I only teach advanced-level academic ESL these days, these beginning-level Farsi language lesson transformed how I look at my students in the higher levels.
The insights this experience gave me as a teacher
Lesson 1: Students don’t necessarily get bored or restless as fast as we think.
When I was a brand new teacher, I used to practice my “script” the night before so that my lesson would flow with no unnecessary pauses. I didn’t want there to be even a few seconds during which I might lose the students’ attention. Although I don’t need to practice my lesson plans in advance now, I still try to keep the lessons tight.
However, there were times when Susan took a minute or so to transition to the next part of the lesson, and she was silent during that time. Contrary to feeling restless, I found these moments to be a kind of relief. It offered me a chance to internalize what she had just taught us. I realized that by having some pauses in my lesson (intentional or otherwise) it may actually facilitate their learning.
Lesson 2: Pair work has even more benefits than I had thought.
I always knew that pair work offered students more chances than teacher-fronted lessons to speak and to use a variety of techniques at their own pace. And I knew that it could be a lot of fun. But I didn’t realize the effect it could have on students’ interpersonal relationships.
For one activity, I was paired with another student, Jay, whom, as a colleague, I had rarely interacted with. As we worked together on a type of information-gap exercise using the Farsi nouns, verbs and prepositions that we had just learned, I could feel a kind of bond developing. Amazingly, this bond continued well beyond our two-day Farsi lessons.
Also, Lesson 1 (above) was reinforced during this pair activity. Nick and I finished a few minutes before a few of the other pairs had. While waiting for the others to finish, it was interesting to notice how content we both felt just sitting quietly, contemplating the activity that we had just finished. I was relieved that Susan didn’t rush over and try to keep us busy with another activity.
Lesson 3: The teacher can completely misunderstand what the students are thinking.
At the end of the second day’s two-hour session, we eight students and Susan, the teacher, had a chance to compare what we had experienced. (Some remarked on their reactions to getting praise from Susan, others to the teacher’s presence during pair work, and still others to the pressure they had felt to respond in front of all of us.)
However, something Susan shared with us about her feeling of insecurity gave me a powerful insight. She told us that during the first activity of the second day, she felt that the activity wasn’t working. It seemed to her that several of us students weren’t feeling engaged and that it was her fault. It turned out that her self-criticism was completely unwarranted. We all had different reasons for why we seemed a bit distracted at the beginning of the lesson, and none of them were connect to her. One student-colleague had been up most of the night with a sick child. Another one had got a traffic ticket on the way to school. One had just finished marking a set of essays and still had some of those on his mind. The truth was, we all thought that Susan’s first activity was very effective. It hit me how much of our students’ lives are affected by life outside our classroom, and whether they seem happy or sad, energetic or tired are often beyond our control. In sum, we can’t automatically evaluate how well students are receiving a lesson by the looks on their faces.
In sum, for many years I had been operating under several assumptions about what my students were experiencing, and these were influencing how I approached them and the lessons. In many ways, I was adding unnecessary stress to myself (and probably to some students) because of these assumptions. Without putting myself in the students’ shoes, I doubt that I would have had these insights and made the changes that have subsequently greatly improved my professional life.